A guest post by Kayfil
My story about sexual harassment begins in India. It doesn’t begin there because I’m a white person trying to exoticize a foreign land and make it into a place where sexual harassment is more prominent than in America. It begins there, because in college in America, I just thought sexual harassment was a part of life. Then I got a boyfriend who respected me and thought that this would be the end of sexual harassment forever.
Then I went to India and realized that’s not how it works.
I realize that no one in India knew that I had a boyfriend, but the difference in India was that prior to this, any actually threatening sexual harassment I had encountered was something I could convince myself was due to me advertising myself as single. “No, maybe I don’t want to kiss you tonight, but I wanted to kiss your friend and I invited you both to come to the party I was throwing, therefore this that is happening right now is my fault,” I would think. This is total bullshit, but I would think it.
When this story begins, though, I was very happily in a long-term long-distance relationship, and had no interest in pursuing men. A few things happened regularly, a few comments and gropes in crowds, but all of that was still “to be expected”, because I had walked into a crowd or been with other white girls or worn jeans. Then I went to a spa that had been recommended to me by some friends, wearing full salwar kameez with a dupatta that covered my lady parts and my hair in a neat braid. I thought once about the fact that the person doing my pedicure was a male, but didn’t think twice about it, because a woman would be doing a manicure at the same time. When the woman left for all of 5 minutes, the boy – definitely a student, probably only about 16 years old – decided to extend the massage up my leg. He tried to reach his hand up my salwar and I asked what he was doing in shock; I had never had a pedicure before so was just as confused and uncertain as I was uncomfortable. I was visibly upset, I was shaking, I tried to tell him to stop. He said “don’t worry, it’s okay, just second massage,” and started to massage my crotch through my pants. I made him leave; the girl came back and painted my nails. I was just too confused and shocked to say anything until I stepped outside and just started to shake and cry.
This was when I realized that nothing I can do can protect me from sexual harassment. The truth is, if a man really wants to do something to a woman, he can. It doesn’t matter what I’m wearing, if I have a hypothetical boyfriend on the other side of the world, or if I have a real boyfriend standing right next to me: no matter what, I am vulnerable to any man who decides he wants to rape me.
This isn’t just because of anything physical, it is because of society. Right now, it is more acceptable in both India and America for a man to rape a girl than for a woman to have been raped. We saw this in India with the Guwahati case, when we were told that she deserved to be gang-raped because she was wearing a skirt and out at night. We saw this in America, when an entire football team in Ohio posted videos of themselves bragging about rape, said they didn’t “realize” it was rape, and had the entirity of American media feeling sorry for the poor rapists whose lives were being ruined by their decision to rape. All of these things are wrong; they put pressure on men to put out, and a pressure on women to keep their legs closed. It doesn’t work out well for either party, but it makes violence against women and their vaginas an okay crime to commit. In this society, my body is the most essential part of me and at the same time isn’t really ever mine. This is why rape happens.
No matter where I am, I am threatened. I went tailgating at a football game in South Carolina, and when driving home had some boys try to get me to roll down my window and talk to them because “even though she drives a Prius, she’s actually kind of cute.” A random guy in Queens took a sticker off his shirt and tried to stick it on mine, and a random homeless guy stared at me at a cafe, asked me to buy him an orange juice, and when I ran away towards the subway decided to tell me I looked nice.
In these moments, I didn’t know what was happening; I was just as confused as when that boy grabbed my crotch during a pedicure. At least in India, sexual harassment is straightforward, I thought. At least I know when it’s happening. In America, they make up excuses to touch my boobs, where in India they would have just grabbed them. Is one better than the other? Either way, I sometimes feel scared shitless to walk outside by myself as a woman.
In America, we demonized India after the Delhi bus incident in December. We said that things like that never happen here, trying to distract ourselves from the shootings that were happening at home. Then Steubenville happened, and the victim blaming began. None of these are isolated incidents that happen only on the other side of the globe, only in rural Ohio, or only in big cities like New York. They stem from a patriarchal culture that is everywhere, perpetuating an idea of masculinity and femininity that says men must rape and women must avoid rape and makes everyone just feel terrible.
I had a nice time in India. I went to a wonderful party where everyone was intoxicated and told me they wanted to sleep with me, but no one did because I told them no. I walked down the streets of Delhi, alone and tipsy at 11 pm, wearing Western clothes, and was entirely fine. I have these moments in America, too, and they’re wonderful. Sexual harassment doesn’t always happen anywhere, but these small moments shouldn’t be amazing; they should be the norm.
As a male friend of mine observed, you might think it would be nice to hear how beautiful you are, but if someone says that to you on the street without actually knowing you, you’re going to assume it’s because they want to sleep with you. Whether it’s a 50 year old man saying “hey beautiful” to a 22 year old girl or the other way around, the objective is probably sex. The difference is that the 22 year old girl probably couldn’t rape the 50 year old man even if she wanted to, and the 50 year old man could definitely rape the 22 year old girl. This is what makes only one of these scenarios a threat.
Yes, men should be able to just compliment women if they want to, but they just can’t right now. I would love for everyone to just openly love each other all the time, but that’s not going to be okay in normal everyday society for a while. Whether in India or America, unless you’re at a rave or know the person in real life, just try to stay away from saying “nice” things about females’ bodies. Even if you know the person in real life, you probably want to stop and ask yourself why you’re saying it: and if you’re saying it just because you want to have sex with her, that’s not okay.